We have the tin-pot leader whose vanity knows no bounds. We have the rapacious family feathering their nests without regard for the law or common decency. We have utter disregard for values at home and abroad, the disdain for democracy, the hunger for constraining a free press, the admiration for thugs and strongmen worldwide.
We have all the makings of a banana republic. But worse, we are showing the telltale signs of a failing state. Our government has ceased to function. Party politics and gross self-interest has rendered the majority party oblivious to its responsibilities to its constituents and the Constitution of the United States. On a daily basis, Republicans watch their leader violate not only the traditions and standards of the high office he occupies, but through inaction they enable him to personally profit from the presidency, promote policies that benefit his cronies and his class to the detriment of the majority of the American people, and serially attack the principles on which the country was founded — from freedom of religion to the separation of powers.
Recent events have taken this grim situation and turned it dire. We now know that Donald Trump chose a man as his top national security advisor whom the prior president had both fired and warned him against hiring. We know that Trump’s White House failed to vet this man who would be entrusted with some of America’s most sensitive secrets and decisions. We know they did not get him the security clearance his position required, yet allowed him to operate freely in that position. We know that this man, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, took significant cash payments from an enemy, Russia, and from a nominal ally with which we have precarious relations, Turkey. We know Flynn failed to disclose those payments in violation of the law.
Indeed, we know that the only thing likely to keep Flynn from serving time for felonies is if he strikes a bargain with the prosecutors who are now investigating his behavior. As a consequence of revelations associated with those investigations, we know that Flynn, had ongoing contact with Russians officials during the campaign and, after he was named national security advisor, had conversations with the Russian ambassador about which he lied to the American people and, ostensibly, to the vice president of the United States. We know these conversations were likely illegal as well.
We do not know when the president became aware of Flynn’s Russia ties or whether he approved or disapproved of them. We do know that other members of his campaign team — including his campaign chairman and a named foreign-policy advisor — also had ties to Moscow that were close enough that they were compelled to resign during the campaign. We also believe they may be at the center of a federal investigation that began during last year’s campaign into the nature of the relationships between the Trump campaign and a Russian government that was actively trying to undermine U.S. democracy. We also know that another Trump campaign advisor, Roger Stone, admitted to contact with known Russian agents including contact that might be seen to suggest collusion regarding the timing of releases of hacked documents damaging to the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Trump has been aware of the controversy surrounding these ties even before the GOP convention last year. He has obviously been aware of the investigations into these ties since his victory. Not only has this apparently not colored his public actions, but, on the contrary, he has repeatedly expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin, support for Moscow’s attack on U.S. democracy, support for policies that would benefit the Russians, and as recently as the past week has espoused a view that the Russians were not behind these attacks — despite the unanimous view of the entire U.S. intelligence community.
When on Jan. 24, Trump was told by the acting attorney general of the United States, Sally Yates, that there was compelling evidence that Flynn had lied and that he might be compromised by the Russians, Trump did nothing. For three weeks, Flynn continued to serve as national security advisor, take classified briefings, sit in on sensitive calls, appoint personnel, and oversee the national security activities of the Trump administration. It was not until a newspaper report revealed the investigation into Flynn that Trump was forced to reluctantly let him go. Before that, ostensibly for other reasons but that also showed his contempt for the independent operations of the Justice Department, Trump fired the woman who had brought him the news about Flynn.
Now, days after that woman’s testimony before Congress and prior testimony by the director of the FBI made it clear that there was an ongoing, serious investigation of the Trump team’s ties to Russia, the president has chosen to fire the head of the FBI. In the middle of an investigation into the possibility that some of his closest advisors committed extraordinarily serious crimes — and before anyone could know what Trump’s role in or knowledge of those crimes might have been — Trump has fired the man heading the investigation into his team. When one includes the dismissal of former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, this makes the third high-profile firing of someone playing a pivotal role into the investigation of the Trump administration in the brief time since the president took office.
We don’t know what crimes may or may not have been committed — but we do see several patterns of behavior. All are deeply worrisome. Trump has repeatedly shown a reckless disregard for U.S. national security and national interests. He has shown a contempt for the law and for the American legal system. And when challenges to the legality of the behavior of his associates have arisen, Trump has repeatedly acted in ways that appear intended to prevent or impede the ability of those who would seek the truth. (Perhaps worse, he regularly takes to Twitter and other media to do to them what he never does to the Russians who attacked our democracy: denigrate and discredit those individuals for doing their jobs and upholding their sworn duties.)
This deeply disturbing behavior is only made more worrisome by the fact that in other circumstances, as when the legality of immigration policies were repeatedly struck down by the courts, he has attacked judges and shown no appreciation for their independent and equivalent status to the executive branch in our system of government. In other words, he has repeatedly shown a desire to attack the system, laws, and Constitution he swore an oath to uphold. He has done so using all the tools of a demagogue and some of those more commonly associated with authoritarian regimes.
We have reached a moment of crisis in the history of American democracy. One has to go back to Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre to find an effort equivalent to the Slow-Motion Massacre of Yates, Bharara, and Comey as they carried forward their investigative responsibilities. But the pressure on others in government will grow. CNN has reported that grand jury subpoenas have been issued for Flynn associates with regard to the Russia matter. They have also reported that the Senate Finance Committee is seeking financial records of the Trump team (which must necessarily include Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, given the history of their business dealings with Russians) as part of their investigation.
But while this investigation is gaining momentum, Trump is acting more brazenly and desperately (as illustrated not just by the Comey action or his tweets seeking to intimidate Sally Yates prior to her testimony, but also by his bizarre behavior including, for example, the weird, distorted, and misleading interpretation of the testimony of former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper). Trump’s dismissal letter of Comey also strangely referenced “three separate occasions” on which the FBI director informed the president that he was not “under investigation” before going on to say, that he “nevertheless” agreed with the Department of Justice that Comey should be fired.
What does that “nevertheless” mean? It seems to suggest that had Comey not allegedly said Trump wasn’t under investigation, he would have had grounds to dismiss him.
Trump is acting like a desperate man, not to mention a guilty one. That his team, in particular Kellyanne Conway, has gone on television to argue that somehow the Comey firing was okay because Trump is not personally under investigation is the defense of a narcissist who does not understand the responsibilities he has as president. It is lie after lie after deception after misstatement to protect their man. With every syllable they utter, they make him look more guilty.
This activity is not lost on the rest of the world. They see an America unlike any they can recall and a leader who is clearly not fit for office. Said one diplomat from a close ally in this hemisphere, “We often have discussions at home as to whether Trump is crazy. We think he is. We have had experience with leaders like this in South America. But I never expected to see it in Washington.” It is a sentiment I have heard in one form or another often in the past few weeks.
America looks like a country it has never been. Trump is a laughingstock in the best of circumstances, a disgrace based on his known behavior to date, and a threat to global order and security with each action he takes. He discredits the office he holds and the government he leads.
But for every depredation or attack on our system by Trump and his team, for every act of complicity by the invertebrates who lead the GOP on Capitol Hill, there has been some portion of the U.S. government and system to counterbalance it. Judges have stayed bad executive orders. The FBI has investigated — personal career consequences for the investigators be damned.
The brazen firing of Comey is an escalation. If Trump is allowed to get away with this and appoint a lackey as chief investigator into his team’s alleged wrongdoing, the world will see the United States as a failing state, one that is turning its back on the core ideas on which it was founded — that no individual is above the law and that those in the government, at every level including the president, work for the people. Only if an independent prosecutor is appointed will America be seen as being the nation of laws it has long represented itself to be. Only if a thorough investigation takes place that includes an examination of Trump family ties in Russia (and elsewhere) and how these may have compromised the United States will the message be sent that America is the nation that has for so long been seen as an example to the world.
It will require a bipartisan commitment to truth and justice. Ultimately, and the sooner the better, it will require our system and people to reject Trump and those surrounding him — who have already done so much to disgrace the offices they hold and undermine America’s standing in the world.